Illuminations, A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt, is a radiant and absorbing book, providing a deeply moving portrayal of the life of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century German mystic. Because she was the 10th child in her family and, perhaps more importantly, because even as a very young child she was visited by visions and her parents did not know what to do with her, she was “tithed” to the church. Yes, given away. At the age of eight, she and a young noblewomen for whom Hildegard served as a companion were locked away in the anchorage of a monastery. For the next 30 years Hildegard never left that small, bricked-up enclosure. You have to read the story to understand how and why this could possibly have happened.
The isolation, cruel as it was, allowed her several advantages. She learned to read and was supplied with all the books from the monastery’s library, even on subjects normally restricted to girls. She learned to play the psaltery and began to compose stirring vocal and instrumental music. She learned herbal medicine and kept herbs and flowers in pots in the small courtyard of the anchorage and made salves and remedies used in the monastery’s infirmary. She developed a fierce, independent spirit, chafing against the suffering of her young years, which in later life gave her the courage to rebuke the church for its practices. Still experiencing her visions, in the long hours of her seclusion, she “saw” the great power and love at the center of creation, with the holy Mother soothing her lonely soul.
After being released from her confinement, she continued her spiritual seeking, founding a community of nuns and becoming the abbess. She was tireless in her devotion to her “daughters” and her work as a healer, writer, teacher, composer and visionary. She produced a tremendous flowering of artistic and intellectual accomplishment and innovation. Although she was often at odds with church authority she also enjoyed the support of several popes and archbishops, as well as the king of Germany, and she kept up prodigious correspondences with them and other dignitaries. But perhaps she would most want to be remembered for the spiritual truths she envisioned, of Caritas, Divine Love, which came to her as a living light.
We own several works of fiction and non-fiction about Hildegard as well as a sampling of her own writings on an array of subjects. Two dvds tell her story as well. Mostly she has left behind her music, of which we have a generous representation in our collection.